Investing Information

Caveat Emptor: You May Owe Taxes Despite 401(K) Losses!

One among many ways you lose money in non-indexed mutual funds is the tax trap. You may have to pay taxes even when your mutual fund loses money! To many people this is painfully unexpected. Here is how this counter intuitive event occurs. By law, mutual funds do not pay taxes. Instead, they pass on those taxes to you, the shareholder in the mutual fund. If the fund manager sells a stock for more than it cost the fund a profit is generated. This profit is called a capital gain and it is taxable. Capital gains are taxed at your ordinary income tax rate which is between 28% and 38.6% for most investors if the fund held the stock for less than a year. If the stock was held for more than a year, in other words long term, the tax is 20%.

There are a couple of reasons why mutual funds pay taxes. If the fund does poorly investors will bail out. The mutual fund has to sell off stock to pay the investors who leave. Even if you are not one of the investors jumping ship you will still have to pay your portion of the capital gains tax.

Dividends are another reason that taxes come due. Dividends are taxed at the per-share earnings distributions that companies make out of their quarterly earnings. Many investors instruct their mutual fund to automatically reinvest their dividends. This means that the fund uses the money to buy more shares in your name. Even if you reinvest and never get a penny of the dividends, they are subject to tax, according to the IRS.

Another reason you may get a tax bill is due to high turnover. Turnover measures the frequency with which a fund manger buys and sells shares, sometimes in search of the next high-flying stock or undervalued stock on the verge of taking off. According to Lipper, the average fund in 2000 showed a turnover rate of 122%. This means that the entire portfolio changed between January and December, and 22% of the replacement shares changed as well.

This is the ultimate case of account churning! You simply have to understand that when you buy into a fund you are buying into a tax liability. The best way to avoid these taxes altogether is to restrict your purchases of mutual funds to your 401(k) and try to only buy indexed mutual funds such as the Vanguard 500 (FINX).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Scott Brown, Ph.D., a.k.a. "The Wallet Doctor", is a successful futures trader, real estate investor, and stock investor. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in finance from the University of South Carolina. His 1998 articles in Technical Analysis of Stocks and Commodities were prophetic in predicting an impending stock market crash. He has helped many people become profitable investors by teaching them to look out over many years to spot stocks that are low and primed for rise in the new bull market. His second article met with approval by Dr. Bob Shiller of Yale University. Dr. Shiller is the economist that Alan Greenspan most highly regards who coined the term "Irrational Exuberance." In 1998 he shouted to the world to "get out" of the stock market but now he is shouting to everyone that it is time to "get in!" The Wallet Doctor is not only sought after for investment advice and coaching in stock investing but also in futures trading and real estate investing. Visit Dr. Brown's site at or sign up for his investment tips at


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